Homily at Milton Keynes, for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.
I’m not OK. You’re not OK. But that’s OK.
In today’s Gospel, Our Lord warns us not to praise ourselves highly, especially in comparison with others. If we do, we run all sorts of risks.
Earlier this weekend, I was at a seminar in Oxford University – a reunion for science graduates. The dean of the faculty was boasting of just having welcomed this year’s new intake of students, the ‘best of the best’ – each one discovering they were no longer a big fish in a small pond. That might be a humbling experience for the new undergraduates, but the department, already one of the best in the world, wanted to be recognised as the best in the world. A little later, 5 minutes into the lecture, one of the staff of one of the best faculties in the world stopped, apologised to the audience, and declared: “I’ve got the wrong version of the talk on the screen!” He then proceeded use a particularly nerdy method to first fail, and then succeed, to get the right version running. I think that was the moment the audience enjoyed most; and it reinforced what I had noticed in my student days, that the people who might be the best in the world at understanding how the world works are not always best at making the world work!
So when we praise ourselves too highly, we set ourselves up for a fall. But Jesus is seeking to save us from more than mere social embarrassment – he wants to rescue us from the terrible comparison game where we suffer constant anxiety from measuring ourselves against other people.
Now, in both sports and science, competition has its place. Few athletes set a world record which remains unbroken for decades; all athletes know that they will only be world champions for a short span of peak fitness. The unhappiest athlete is a silver medalist: while they kick themselves for missing out on gold, the bronze medallist (who wasn’t aiming for silver) is smiling at missing out on being placed 4th and going home with nothing to show for it. Only one person or team can be top of the league at any one time, and few can maintain top rank forever. So it is very foolish to pin our aspirations to being the best. Instead, a great question to ask, is “Did I do good?”
St Paul asked himself that question, and the answer was in the affirmative. “I have fought the good fight to the end. I have run the race to the finish. I have kept the faith.” Each one of us, at the sunset of our lives, will meet Our Lord Jesus face-to-face. We will find ourselves asking only one question as he gazes upon us’: “Did I do what you called me, personally, to do?” You’ll have heard the famous quote from Cardinal Newman, that God has created me to do some definite service not entrusted to any other person. That’s what matters – not that I was better than anyone else, but that I was the best version of myself.
There was once a town high street with three barber’s shops on it. The first barber, seeking to attract more trade, placed a sign in the window: “This is the best Barber Shop in Milton Keynes!” The second barber, knowing he had to be competitive, also placed a sign: “This is the best Barber Shop in England!” The third barber was a humble man, a devout Christian, and unwilling to engage in this kind of one-upmanship. But his business was losing customers. How could he respond without terrible pride? He thought and prayed for a long time, and eventually placed a sign in his window, and indeed his business went right up. What did it say? “This is the best Barber Shop on this High Street!”
I’m not OK. You’re not OK. We’re not OK because sometimes we make selfish choices – but when we realise that we can take our guilt to confession, and God will always offer us a fresh start if we seek to overcome our selfishness. We’re not OK because we sometimes have impossible dreams about who we should be; we feel ashamed of our inadequacy. But strangely enough, God loves us just the way we are, and Jesus died so that we could enter heaven.
God has high expectations of us. He wants to be able to reward us for doing exceptional good deeds. But we need to be clear about one thing – Heaven is where we get rewarded for the good we do, but going to heaven is not a reward for our goodness. So here’s one more story to leave you with. It’s about Paddy – a man who was very active in his church community, and died in his 70s.
When Paddy reached the Pearly Gates, he expected them to swing open in front of him. Instead, he was rather bemused to find St Peter standing in front of him with a clipboard.
“OK,” said St Peter, “here’s how it works. In order to get into heaven, you need 100 points. You tell me all the reasons we should let you into heaven, and I will add up the points.”
“Right,” said Paddy. “For starters, I have never missed Mass on a Sunday. Every weekend of my life, I’ve been at church.”
“Excellent,” said St Peter. “One point.”
Paddy’s face fell. “Only one?” he thought – but he didn’t say it out loud.
“I’ve always supported church,” said Paddy, “and ever since I started earning a decent wage I’ve given 5% of my income to church. And I used Gift Aid!”
“Great,” said St Peter. “That’s another point.”
Paddy was beginning to feel rather desperate now. What would earn him another 98 points? He had one more thing…
“I’ve always been a peacemaker,” he said, “stepping in to stop fights. And if I’ve been arguing with someone, I’ve always been the first to step forward to make up.”
“Wonderful,” said St Peter, “the boss is really keen on that sort of thing. That gets you another three points – you’ve scored five so far.”
“FIVE POINTS?” scowled Paddy. “For all that, just five? If I’m ever going to get through those gates, it will only be by the grace of God !”
At that moment, a fanfare played and the gates opened. “That’s the correct answer,” said St Peter, “only God’s grace is worth 100 points. Come on in!”